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Three local families cited in new book on the American dream; author to speak in Atlanta

On Thursday, the author of a new book on the opportunity gap that imperils the American dream is to speak at the Atlanta History Center. File/Credit: Donita Pendered

By David Pendered

Three black families from metro Atlanta are featured in the chapter titled Parenting in Robert Putnam’s month-old book, and on Thursday the Harvard University professor is slated to discuss his disturbing findings on the American dream during a program at the Atlanta History Center.

Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam. Credit: chronicle.com

The three families speak to the heart of the opportunity gap that Putnam describes in, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The book was published March 10, by Simon and Schuster, and Atlanta is one of Putnam’s stops while on leave this spring from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Putnam’s book puts a face on the notion of social immobility in Atlanta, and across the country, that was brought to light in 2013 by another Harvard professor, Nathaniel Hendren, and fellow researchers. Their work showed that metro Atlanta ranks 50th among the nation’s 50 largest metros in terms of children from the bottom fifth income bracket moving into the top fifth income bracket.

Putnam writes:

  • “We can open an interesting window on class differences in child development and parenting across America by meeting three black families from Atlanta, each representing a different slice of the socioeconomic hierarchy, and each illustrating a distinctive type of parental involvement and support for their children. Together, these three stories illustrate the interplay of economics, family structure, and parenting that affects the prospects of kids from different class backgrounds, whatever their racial background.”
"Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis." By Robert Putnam. Published by Simon and Schuster

“Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” By Robert Putnam. Published by Simon and Schuster

The first family Putnam describes in Chapter 3 is educated, cohesive and prosperous; it includes parents Simone and Carl, and their son, Desmond. They reside in an unidentified community southwest of Atlanta that Putnam describes as a, “comfortable, racially mixed suburb.”

Carl is quoted as saying:

  • “Nowadays, you must be involved with your kids more. When they struggle with their music lessons, find out why. Desmond [now 22] still calls every day, though he has [other obligations], so you have to let go a bit. But it is an extremely strong relationship. If I look at other people, the way they are with their kids, I’m just so thankful.”

The second family is a single-parent household headed by Stephanie, who cares for daughters Lauren and Michele. They reside in a, “large, tract home, located in a new development on the outskirts of Atlanta.” Stephanie works fulltime as an office manager in the hospitality business.

Stephanie is quoted as saying:

  • “My mom was an alcoholic, and I wasn’t choosing the same path. I go to work every day. I motivate my kids. I push my kids to go to college. … I’m not my children’s friend! I’m the best of parents to my children. A parent don’t need to be their kids friend. They need to be their parents, so they can guide them in the right direction. … You respect me as a parent, I’ll respect you as my child.”

The third family has just one member – Elijah. He grew up parent-less in New Orleans, and moved to metro Atlanta to care for her mother’s two year-old twins she’d birthed after, “a little casual sex,” with a man who isn’t Elijah’s father.

On Thursday, the author of a new book on the opportunity gap that imperils the American dream is to speak at the Atlanta History Center. File/Credit: Donita Pendered

On Thursday, the author of a new book on the opportunity gap that imperils the American dream is to speak at the Atlanta History Center. File/Credit: Donita Pendered

Elijah describes how he hopes to treat his own future children:

  • “Tell ‘m the right things. If my son gets rowdy and acts like a thug, like I used to do, and then starts robbing people, I just speak good words over his life. I mean, don’t’ get me wrong: I’m gong to beat him, I’m going to teach him what’s right from wrong. But I’m gonna say good words over him. If you tell your child that he ain’t gonna be nothin’ but a low-down dirty-rat scoundrel, you child is gonna be a low-down dirty-rat scoundrel. You gotta believe that one day he’s gonna be a fantastic person.”

At this point, Putnam tells us the class disparities the three families present are just as evident among white families. Putnam then moves on to discuss child development and how, and why, parenting practices have evolved over the past decades – largely to the disadvantage of poor youths.

Putnam’s program at the Atlanta History Center is slated to begin at 8 p.m. Each ticket is priced at $10 for non-members. The AHC is located in Buckhead, at 130 West Paces Ferry Road.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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